In the footsteps of Messi and Co.
The curtain will finally rise on FIFA’s most important youth tournament when the hotly anticipated Opening Match between the hosts and Ukraine kicks off in Auckland on Saturday at 13:00 local time. Driven by the ambition to make a name for themselves on the international stage, 504 of the world’s most talented youngsters are preparing to launch a bid for this coveted trophy. Seized by a thirst for adventure and a desire to write an indelible chapter in footballing history, the tournament’s 24 teams are ready to battle it out to succeed reigning champions France and claim the trophy.
Great expectations for title contenders
The finals, hosted in the seven cities of Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Whangarei and Wellington, promise to be a highly competitive affair. With France surprisingly failing to qualify for New Zealand 2015 after winning the last edition of the tournament two years ago, Argentina – record six-time world champions in this age group despite not playing at Turkey 2013 – and five-time victors Brazil are likely to be two of the main title contenders.
Among the other sides with high hopes are Portugal, who have lifted this trophy twice before, and Germany, who travel to Oceania having emerged victorious from last year’s U-19 European Championship. And no list of potential winners would be complete without the consistent threat posed by west African teams. Ghana have reached the semi-finals of this competition on five occasions and went home as champions in 2009, while Nigeria have finished as runners-up twice before and are seeking to finally become the second team from their continent to take home youth football’s greatest accolade.
“The U-20 World Cup is one of the greatest tournaments on the world stage, and some of the very best nations will be competing for the trophy in New Zealand,” said a proud Winston Reid in an interview with FIFA.com. The All Whites’ captain, who boasts Maori ancestry, is most excited at the prospect of the different playing influences on display during the competition. “Every match will have an appeal all of its own,” he said. “Every team will have a totally unique philosophy and playing style.”
Fan favourites keen to impress
The host nation are fired up and sure to capture the hearts of many supporters. The Junior All Whites are hoping the roar of their home crowd will help them to significantly improve their tally of two draws and seven defeats from their three previous appearances at U-20 World Cups, and coach Darren Bazeley is enthusiastic about his team’s prospects: “This tournament gives us a great opportunity to show New Zealand’s football and the players within our squad in the best possible light. We’ve got to ensure that the footballers in our team deliver strong performances for both themselves and their country. This competition is a fantastic chance for all of us.”
As is so often the case, the event’s two debutants are also sure to receive plenty of public support. Both Myanmar and Fiji are taking part in their first FIFA U-20 World Cup and are determined to make a lasting impression. “Anyone visiting New Zealand will have a fantastic time,” said Reid. “As hosts it’s our job to ensure that we send our guests home with unforgettable memories. There’s no doubt that the tournament will be a huge success and I really hope it captures the public’s imagination. Although football is growing in this country, it’s far from being the most popular sport, so hopefully this competition will also help football to generate more attention and acknowledgement here."
Enthusiasm and inspiration
The FIFA U-20 World Cup is returning to this corner of the globe for the third time after two previous editions were hosted by Australia. It is also the third time New Zealand has hosted a FIFA tournament after welcoming players and fans to its shores for the U-17 World Cup 1999 and the U-17 Women’s World Cup 2008. In his foreword to the programme published by the LOC, FIFA President Blatter wrote: “We hope that this event will help to give the sport a boost both in this country and the wider region and inspire even more young people, boys and girls alike, to play football.”
A whole host of rough diamonds who have already made a name for themselves are aiming to take a step towards becoming idols in New Zealand. Brazilian Andreas Pereira and Argentinians Angel Correa and Giovanni Simeone are hungry for success and looking forward to the start of the tournament as eagerly as Colombians Jeison Lucumi and Andres Tello, while Bundesliga starlets Marc Stendera and Julian Brandt are seeking to cause a sensation with the German team. Nigeria’s Moses Simon is hoping to demonstrate his goalscoring threat as effectively at this World Cup as he has in Belgium over the past six months, and Bill Tuiloma – currently playing for top French side Marseille - is determined to lead the Junior All Whites into the knockout stages.
It is difficult to imagine a more promising U-20 World Cup, with its array of excellent stadiums, warm-hearted and enthusiastic hosts and some of the world’s most talented young footballers battling it out for the special honour of lifting the trophy into the evening sky over Auckland on 20 July. Who will win the race? Only time will tell. All that remains is to wish the young protagonists well with that Maori greeting meaning “be well” – Kia Ora!